More shelling in Homs neighborhoods as Syrian forces shun international pressure


Syrian government forces resumed the bombardment of Baba Amro in Homs on Wednesday, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists. It is the 12th successive day of bombardment of this city that has been at the forefront of the uprising against 42 years of rule by President Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez.

Heavy shelling was reported late Wednesday in the Baba Amro and Bab Sebaa areas of Homs, the Syrian Revolution General Commission said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Revolution General Commission reported that 54 people have been killed by security force gunfire across Syria on Wednesday, with most of the deaths in Idlib.

A huge fire had erupted as shelling hit the main crude oil pipeline feeding the refinery in Homs, activists at the Syrian Revolutions Authority told Al Arabiya, adding that the fire extended to nearby areas.

“Warplanes hit the oil pipeline in Homs for the 3rd time,” activists told Al Arabiya.

Meanwhile, Syrian forces launched an offensive on the city of Hama early on Wednesday, firing on residential neighborhoods from armored vehicles and mobile anti-aircraft guns, opposition activists said, after 49 people were killed in crackdown across the country.

Elite Syrian forces backed by armored personnel carriers stormed part of Damascus on Wednesday, firing machineguns in the air, in the closest deployment of troops to the center of the capital, residents and activists said.

Troops from the Fourth Armored Division and Republican Guards erected roadblocks in main streets of Barzeh neighborhood, searched houses and made arrests.

Residents said the troops were looking for opposition activists and members of the Free Syrian Army, which has been providing security for protests against President Bashar al-Assad in the district.

Emergency fund

France said it had created a one million euro emergency fund for aid agencies looking to help the Syrian people and would propose a similar one at an international level next week at a meeting in Tunisia to discuss the escalating crisis.

Paris had previously proposed “humanitarian corridors” with Syrian approval or with an international mandate for shipping food and medicine to alleviate civilian suffering.

Tanks deployed near the citadel of Hama were shelling the neighborhoods of Faraya, Olailat, Bashoura and al-Hamidiya, and troops were advancing from the airport, opposition sources said.

An activist called Amer, speaking briefly by satellite phone, told Reuters that “landlines and mobile phone networks have been cut in the whole of Hama,” a Sunni city notorious for the massacre of some 10,000 people when the present president's father Hafez sent in troops to crush an uprising there in 1982.

Activists said no casualty reports were available from Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city, because of communications problems.

Assad’s determination to crush the revolt, regardless of widespread condemnation of his use of force against civilians, prompted Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia to prepare a new resolution at the United Nations in support of a peace plan forged at a meeting in Cairo on Sunday.

Political and material support

A resolution passed at the meeting urged Arabs to “provide all kinds of political and material support” to the opposition.

This included arms transfers, Arab League diplomats told |Reuters.

“We will back the opposition financially and diplomatically in the beginning but if the killing by the regime continues, civilians must be helped to protect themselves. The resolution gives Arab states all options to protect the Syrian people,” an Arab ambassador said in Cairo.

The head of Egypt’s influential seat of Sunni Islamic learning, al-Azhar, called on Tuesday for bold Arab action against the Syrian government, raising regional pressure on Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, that has dominated Syria for five decades.

The threat of military support was meant to add pressure on the Syrian leader and his Russian and Chinese allies but it also risks leading to a Libya-style conflict or sectarian civil war.

Russia and China on Feb. 4 vetoed a Western-Arab U.N. Security Council resolution that backed an Arab League call for Assad to step aside as part of efforts to end the 11 months of bloodshed.

U.S. President Barack Obama told Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping on Tuesday, at a meeting at the White House, that the United States was disappointed with China's veto, an administration official said.

Smuggled guns are already reaching Syria but it is not clear if Arab or other governments are behind the deliveries. Weapons and Sunni Muslim insurgents are also crossing into Syria from Iraq, Iraqi officials and arms dealers said.

Assad dismisses his opponents as terrorists backed by enemy nations in a regional power-play and says he will introduce reforms on his own terms.

Rallies by civilians, defying the crackdown, are one part of the uprising, but armed insurrection by the Free Syrian Army, mainly army defectors, is increasingly coming into play.

The government says at least 2,000 members of its military and security forces have died and the United Nations says government forces have killed several thousand civilians.

Switzerland, meanwhile, on Wednesday said it was closing its embassy in Damascus and urged its nationals to leave Syria “as quickly as possible.”

The embassy closure, which follows that by the United States, was announced by Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter and comes against a background of increasing violence in Syria where the regime is seeking to crush a nearly year-long rebellion.

The embassy will be closed “in the coming days,” Burkhalter told Swiss Radio.

“We withdrew our ambassador very quickly” after the start of the repression, “but we had kept our embassy open to assist the 150 to 180 Swiss nationals living over there, most of whom have double nationality,” the minister added.

Attacking Homs

At least six people were killed in Homs, a strategic city on the highway between Damascus and the commercial hub Alepp, on Tuesday, taking the city’s estimated toll above 400 since the assault began on Feb.3.

“Two rockets are falling a minute on average,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, told AFP by telephone, citing activists on the ground.

Syrians who have fled to neighboring Jordan said the situation was unbearable, and monitoring groups say more than 6,000 people have been killed since Assad’s forces began their crackdown on the protesters in March.

“The situation in Syria has become unbearable and what the media broadcast is nothing but a tiny fraction of the painful reality,” a 26-year-old computer engineer who sought shelter in a Jordanian border town told AFP.

A video uploaded to YouTube by activists showed a powerful blast striking what they said was Baba Amr, sending flames shooting into the sky and a plume of black smoke over the rebel stronghold.

Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, an opposition activist group, said the shelling of Baba Amr was extremely heavy.

“The situation is tragic. There are pregnant women, people with heart problems, diabetics and, foremost, wounded people who we cannot evacuate,” he said on the phone from the beleaguered city.

“On Monday evening three activists entered the town by car transporting bread, baby milk and medicine,” he said. “Their car was hit by a rocket. They all burned to death.”

Foreign media have to rely on unverified activists’ accounts because the Syrian government restricts access. But reports from neutral international organizations confirm a general picture of widespread violence.

Arab-U.N. peacekeeping mission

An Arab League proposal that a joint Arab-U.N. peacekeeping mission be sent to Syria elicited a guarded response from Western powers, who are wary of becoming bogged down militarily in Syria. It was rejected out of hand by the Assad government.

Russia, Assad’s main ally and arms supplier, also showed little enthusiasm, saying it could not support a peacekeeping mission unless both sides stopped the violence first.

The Syria conflict, one of a series of revolts in the Arab world which saw the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya toppled last year, is shaping up to be a geopolitical struggle reminiscent of the Cold War.

Russia wants to retain its foothold in the region and counter U.S. influence. Assad is also allied to regional Shiite power Iran, which is at odds with the United States, Europe and Israel.

Navi Pillay, the top human rights representative at the United Nations, on Monday said the world body’s inaction had “emboldened” Syria’s government to unleash overwhelming force against its own civilians.

“The nature and scale of abuses committed by Syrian forces indicate that crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed since March 2011,” she told the General Assembly.

But Syria’s government rejected her accusations.

“The foreign ministry, in a message sent to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, categorically rejected the new allegations made by the commission,” state news agency SANA said.